Film Review: Network (dir. by Sidney Lumet)

With the recent passing of director, Sidney Lumet, I decided to watch one of Lumet’s best-known films, the 1976 best picture nominee Network.

Network tells the story of Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch).  Howard is a veteran news anchor at a fictional television network.  Because his ratings are in decline, Howard is fired.  Howard reacts to this by announcing that he will commit suicide at the end of the next broadcast.  Ironically, so many people tune in to see Howard kill himself that his ratings improve and Howard gets to keep his job under the watchful eyes of news director Max Shumacher (William Holden) and network executive Dianne Christiensen (Fay Dunaway). 

At the same time, Max and Dianne are adulterous lovers.  The course of the film’s narrative finds Max abandoning his wife (Beatrice Straight) and Dianne, who is described as a “child of the tube,” enthusiastically trying to produce an early reality television show starring a group of Marxist revolutionaries.  They do this under the paranoid eyes of network president Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) and Frank’s boss, the corrupt Arthur Jenson (Ned Beatty).

However, Howard Beale isn’t just an over-the-hill news anchor.  He’s actually a seriously mentally ill man who hears voices and who starts to see himself as some sort of messiah.  Eventually, this leads to a disheveled Howard giving a crazed speech in which he encourages viewers to yell, “I’m as mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  Yes, this is the famous scene that is always used whenever some pompous media jackass wants to criticize the current state of television.  Even though I think it’s one of the most overrated scenes in history, here it is:

Anyway, after this scene, Dianne starts to promote Howard as the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves” and Max gets all outraged over how the news no longer has any integrity (bleh, Max is kinda full of himself) and eventually, Howard’s mad rantings get the attention of Arthur Jenson who has plans of his own for Howard.  The whole thing eventually ends on one of those rather dark notes that’s impressive the first time you watch it but just seems more heavy-handed and clumsy with subsequent viewings.

As you might be able to tell from my review, I almost felt as if I was watching two different movies when I watched Network.  For the first hour, the movie is a sharp and clever satire on the media.  The characters are sharply drawn, the performance are full of nuance, and even the villainous Dianne is allowed a bit of humanity.  And then, Howard gives his famous “mad as Hell” speech and the entire freaking film pretty much just falls apart as suddenly, all the characters start to act like cartoons.  The film’s satire becomes so heavy-handed that you actually find yourself wanting to watch something mindless and brainless just because you know it would piss off self-righteous old Max.  The actors stop acting and instead concentrate on shouting.  Whatever humanity Dianne had been allowed suddenly vanishes and she just becomes yet another stereotypical “castrating bitch.”  Max gets to spend a lot of time telling her why she’s worthless and it pretty much all comes down to the fact that 1) she’s under 40 and 2) she has a vagina.  (Never mind the fact that Max has abandoned his wife, apparently men are allowed to be assholes.)  By the time the 2nd half of the film ends, you don’t care about whatever the film’s message may have been.  You’re just happy that everyone has finally shut up.

As I sat through the second half of this film, it soon became apparent to me why Aaron Sorkin has continually cited Network‘s screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky as a major influence.  Chayefsky won an Oscar for writing Network and he’s constantly cited as one of the greatest screenwriters of all time but, quite frankly, his script isn’t that good.  Much like Sorkin’s work, you’re aware of the screenplay not because of what the characters say but because they say so much.  This is the type of film that is often wrongly called prophetic by bitter old men.  This is largely because the script itself was written by a bitter old man.  The only true insight one gets from this movie is the insight that the old will always view the young and the new as a threat.

And yet, even as the second half of the film collapses around us, Network still holds our attention.  We’re still willing to stick around to see how all of this ends (and keep an eye out for a 17 year-old Tim Robbins who made his uncredited film debut at the end of Network).  This has nothing to do with anything written by Paddy Chayefsky and everything to do with the direction of Sidney Lumet.  I once read somewhere that you can’t make a good film out of a bad script.  I’m not sure who said that though it has a definite William Goldman sound to it.   Well, if nothing else, Network proves that this is not always the case. 

To me, there is no more fitting tribute to Sidney Lumet than to say that he somehow managed to create something worthwhile out of Network.